It’s been a long, at times frustrating journey. Certainly, the lows outweigh the highs by quite some number and when a hobby starts to feel like that it’s maybe time to re-examine it and why you’re doing it.
When I first got a notion for astro-photography I was under no illusions. A quick initial bit of research showed it to be a complex discipline with a lot to learn so I don’t think I underestimated it but what I did do was seriously underestimate the financial aspect and the worse still for a photographer, the lack of creativity.
I first noticed the writing was on the wall when I started to ignore clear nights and not feel like I was missing something. Before the new year any clear night I was out, imaging the Moon, Jupiter and anything else I could get too. By this time though I had already realised that with the kit I had deep space objects were going to be beyond reach but I figured I’d be happy trying to get as good as I could with lunar, solar and planetary images.
This was true for a while but once you’ve done the best you can with Jupiter 20 or so times it’s gets slightly “samey”. You see, one of the main issues with astro work is that there is no opportunity to be creative. Astro-photography is all about capturing what it there, as it is. It’s about making the most of every available photon of light. There’s no opportunity to try and be creative with what you have, it’s more a never ending fight to get more light.
It’s hard to explain.
If you were to take a picture of a flower, how many ways could you take that picture? There’s an almost infinite number of ways to interpret the scene, be it with different lenses, artificial light, angles etc etc etc… You simply cannot do that with astro work.
And now we come to telescopes. I’ve had 3 in the last year and I’ve never really liked any of them. They are fiddly to set up, tempremental to operate and lets be honest here, in all but the biggest of scopes, the views of anything other than the moon or planets is shall we say, disappointing. Those pictures you see of majestic clusters or colourful nebula are visually just grey fuzzy patches. The knowledge of what you are looking at is far more exciting than the actual view in reality.
Now we come to cost. It’s a bottomless pit. Even at the bottom end of the market it’s a massively expensive hobby. Don’t be fooled either into thinking you can do it on the cheap, you simply can’t. If you can be happy with poor to average results then yes, you can but if you really hanker after those wonderfully detailed images of planets and deep space objects be prepared to re-mortgage the house. Nothing is cheap and if it is, then it’s not up to the job. Simple. You hear of people getting “wonderful” results with £3 webcams. The results are not wonderful, they are acceptable for a £3 webcam. Wonderful is what Damian Peach puts out and he simply does not use a £3 webcam.
I can look at landscape images taken with say, a Nikon D4, Lee filters, expensive Nikon lenses and I don’t think, wish I could do that. I can do it, and at a fraction of the cost too. If you look really close, and I mean really close then yes, the image maybe isn’t quite as good but you can as near as damn it do as good as the pro kit for a lot lot less. The difference between the pro kit in astro work and what might be termed as “reasonably affordable” is massive. Don’t even think of looking at the planet images in the Astro-photographer of the year competition and think you will get to within even a million miles of that on cheap kit, you simply won’t, the best you can ever hope for it something YOU are content with.
And at the end of the day, therein lies my root problem. I wasn’t happy with the results I could get. I wasn’t prepared to plough in any more money so I hit a brick wall. Lets be honest too, the British weather didn’t help either!
So what next?
Well, I’ve steadily found I get more enjoyment if I can take astro pics using just normal photographic kit using normal photographic processing techniques. None of this Registax or Deep Space Stacker stuff, just Photoshop, nice and simple. So that leaves me with lunar, solar, comets, widefield, ISS to name but a few. Really the only thing I’m going to miss out on is deep space which I’d already decided wasn’t for me and planets, and talking of planets, only Jupiter and Saturn and really worth looking at anyway.
For now, the binoculars will keep me satisfied and at some point in the future I might look to get a 10” dobsonian scope but I’m in no hurry to do that. The sale of the astro kit will hopefully fund a nice big Sigma 150-500mm lens which I’ll be able to use to good effect on the moon and sun as well as a myriad of other uses!
I suppose this post seems like the whole thing was a very negative experience and it’s wasn’t. There were times of great excitement and feelings of satisfaction. I’ve learned so much too but I also learned that in the end, I’m a creative photographer at heart and that’s where I’m happiest. I’ve also gained massive respect for the guys who do produce these great space images, I’ve dipped a toe in there and know just how hard it is and can now fully appreciate what they do.
So, if after that, anyone fancies a full lunar, solar and planetary imaging kit in Edinburgh, get in touch!
So, since the 8th of March Comet Pan-STARRS has been gracing the Northern Hemisphere skies and true to form for any notable celestial event, it’s been largely clouded out in the UK and especially up here in Scotland. Thankfully this comet isn’t just a blink and miss it event, there were at least a few days to try and catch something.
By Tuesday 12th March the first shots of PANSTARRS were coming in from other parts of the UK, the comet easy to find next to a very young crescent moon. I had to wait till the night of the 13th though for a first attempt. Stood on top of Blackford Hill in what can only be described as Baltic conditions I searched in vain for the comet, despite a reasonably clear sky to the west and only actually spotted it in one shot after I got home and it’s hardly the clearest view of it, which was disappointing as other people seemed to have got some reasonable efforts.
The night of the 15th brought an unexpected chance though. The forecast was predictably wrong although for once in a good way. The skies started to clear around 5pm and just after 6 with still clear sky I figured it might be worth a try, this time from Newhaven Harbour, which has a fairly clear view to the West.
Arriving at Newhaven it looked reasonable but for one patch of dark cloud moving in slowly from the West. This time I decided to wait until 7.15pm before searching for it and made the most of the tail end of a nice sunset in the meantime.
By 7.15pm I was out by the lighthouse with a clear view over to Granton Harbour, using a compass I found exactly where West was and started to take shots of the sky with a 200mm lens, ISO400 and shot exposures. First sweep across the West turned up nothing, 2nd attempt and around 12 shots later, there it was, higher than I expected and very visible in the photograph. With an idea of where it was now I could try for a few wider scenic shots. The last thing I wanted was just pics of the comet with no context. I wanted this to be recognizable as Edinburgh.
The comet isn’t that visible in this shot, but it’s there dead centre towards the top of the image.
Switching to my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM and 2x teleconvertor I went for a closer look still trying to keep the Granton flats in the frame, this was probably the best shot of the night.
Finally, it would have been rude not to have a go at the comet at the full 400mm reach and what a stunning sight it was. By this time it was visible in the viewfinder and I swear it was naked eye visible once you knew where it was.
I finished the night with a peek at Comet Pan-STARRS through my 15×70 binoculars, a truly stunning first encounter with a comet. It’ll be about for a few weeks yet so if you get the chance, do some research as to where it is in the sky and get out and give it a go!
I wouldn’t call what I’ve been doing up until know as “actual” astrophotography. Sure, I’ve been snapping away at all manner of astro related subjects, planets, moons, sun, star clusters, conjunctions, earthshine, aurora, milky way, ISS to name but a few but it’s all been done on a photographic tripod and with the restrictions that brings. Not that it hasn’t been highly enjoyable, it has and it was quite cool to get into this utilising the camera kit I already had but I really wanted to get deeper into the hobby.
With that in mind I started to seriously look at getting a telescope around February. What I found though was an utterly bewildering array of kit on offer that made my head spin every time I looked at it. I spent hour pouring over telescopes on Amazon having to go off and Google all manner of things. What the hell was an alt-az mount, en EQ mount, what’s the difference from an EQ2 to an EQ6, focal lengths, aperture, motor drives and what’s this? Using a webcam???
It was too much to take in initially and with a fear of buying crap I backed off and bought nothing. I put the thoughts of telescopes out my head totally and thought about getting hold of a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead. Coupled with the 2x it would make it a 1000mm lens and I’d have other uses for a lens that size but then by chance I spotted a 2nd hand Meade 4504 telescope on an EQ mount for £80 for sale locally.
The Meade was a disappointment and a revelation at the same time. When I got it home on closer inspection it had had a hard life. The mount wasn’t working properly; it couldn’t be locked in place at all. The motor drives didn’t function either but the OTA was fine. I couldn’t get the camera to focus with it either so I sold it on quickly. What it did do though was take my breath away when I simply used it for observing. From that first night when I properly used it and saw Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and the Orion nebula I knew I had to get something better.
It took another few months of research until I fully understood what I needed. I had a rough budget of £500 and had to get the best from that I could. Initial plans for a Skymax 127 Mak on a GOTO alt-az where discounted when I realised that the alt-az would be great for getting going fast but it would end up frustrating me. No, I had to do this right. It had to be a heavy EQ mount; it seemed pointless going for anything else if I was going to try this properly.
Finally I settled on a Skywatcher Explorer 200P, an 8″ Newtonian reflector sat on an EQ5 mount. It gave me a nice mixture of sturdy EQ mount and a decent sized telescope. At £400 it wasn’t cheap and the SynScan goto version would have bust the budget by a lot so I also got the Skywatcher dual drive motors for the EQ5, all in just under the £500 budget.
Setup, it’s huge and pretty heavy. It’s certainly not a scope you’ll drag out for a quick 5 minutes viewing but I’m safe in the knowledge I’ve got kit that’s capable, once I know how to use it, to deliver what I want. Coming into summer there wasn’t a worse time to buy such an item but I hope to use the next few light months to get to grips with the new toy, learn that EQ mount and get used to the software that goes with astrophotography so when the winter rolls in again I’m prepared and ready to really start learning to image properly.
I’m in this for the long term now, prepared for the fact that it’s going to be a long and at time frustrating learning curve but I’m looking forward to it. If Edinburgh ever clears a clear night again I might even get my first shot of the moon through a telescope.
Here’s a quick artists impression of how I expect the sky over Edinburgh to look for the foreseeable future…
Keep following this blog for the forthcoming astrophotography related highs and more likely lows!